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A speech Abraham Lincoln delivered in February 1864 to Philadelphia loyalists is virtually unknown to modern researchers. Not published until a year after the assassination, it went largely unnoticed and was not included in any of the several collections of Lincoln's works. It probably deserves a better fate.

When one notes that Lincoln's remarks were addressed to a visiting delegation from the Philadelphia Union League, and that John W. Forney was mainly responsible for the meeting, it is easy to assume that the gathering was connected with politics. The Philadelphia Union League had been founded in 1862 to support the war effort. Its members consistently backed Lincoln and his policies.[1] Forney was the owner of The Press, regarded as "Lincoln's Philadelphia Organ." Forney had risen in the newspaper world by first supporting James Buchanan, then shifting to Stephen A. Douglas in the late fifties, and finally, in 1860, to Lincoln and the Republicans. During the war Forney spent most of his time in Washington, where he obtained the appointment of secretary of the Senate in 1861. In the same year he started a Washington paper, the Sunday Morning Chronicle, and in November 1862 he began publishing a daily edition of the Chronicle, reportedly at Lincoln's suggestion. Forney's control of the two newspapers and his position in the Senate made him an important Lincoln political associate. [2]

As the year 1864 began, it appeared that Lincoln would need all the political assistance he could muster if he were to seek a second term as president. The New York Herald attacked him in a February editorial as "a joke incarnated" whose hopes for renomination and Page  [End Page 23] reelection were "the most laughable jokes of all."[3] Horace Greeley, proprietor of the New York Tribune (like the Herald an influential Northern newspaper), "persisted in his opposition to a second term for Lincoln."[4] The Philadelphia Union League and Editor Forney would help provide the president some assistance in his attempt to overcome such resistance.

The Philadelphia Union League was among the earliest groups in the country to urge the renomination and reelection of Lincoln. The driving force for that action was Morton McMichael, proprietor and editor of the North American and United States Gazette. McMichael, who "had a penchant for politics," had supported Lincoln at the Chicago convention of 1860, and his newspaper remained loyal throughout the war. [5] At McMichael's suggestion, a special meeting of the Philadelphia League had been held on January 11, 1864, at which he introduced the main business on the agenda. He explained to members that he had noticed as early as the state elections of the previous October that the sentiment of Pennsylvanians "was concentrating in favor of Mr. Lincoln's election." His resolution continued: "[A]s in all respects [the president] has shown pre-eminent ability in fulfilling the requirements of his great office, we recognize with pleasure the unmistakable indications of the popular will in all the loyal States, and heartily join with fellow-citizens, without any distinction of party, here and elsewhere, in presenting him as the People's candidate for the Presidency."[6] The resolution also called for copies to be made available to the press and to Lincoln. The resolution passed unanimously.[7]

One week later, the Philadelphia Union League held another special meeting, at which its members issued An Address, a single sheet praising Lincoln's performance as president and urging his reelection. That widely disseminated document referred to Lincoln as "the chosen candidate" of loyal Union men. "The approaching downfall of the rebellion and the restoration of the Union," the Address warned, "will demand in our ruler the practical experience, the sagacity, the honesty of purpose, and the single-heartedness which so pre-eminently distinguish our present President. The exigencies of the time require him, and the country cannot allow him to retire into private Page  [End Page 24]


 Abraham Lincoln by Anthony Berger at Mathew Brady's gallery in
Washington, D.C., February 9, 1864.
Abraham Lincoln by Anthony Berger at Mathew Brady's gallery in Washington, D.C., February 9, 1864. Page  [End Page 25]
life at the very crisis when his familiarity with all the details of the situation renders his services more essential than ever." [8]

Forney sent that document to Lincoln, along with a note arranging a meeting with league representatives. Forney informed Lincoln that he had just returned from several days in New York, where what he "heard" and "saw" convinced him that a "determined opposition" existed to the president in "quarters unnecessary to point out to you." Nevertheless, Forney added, the "people" remained loyally at his "back"; as proof he included a clipping from the Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia that not only boasted that Lincoln had become as popular as George Washington and Andrew Jackson but also ended with the prediction that the president would "enjoy a four year term of Peace after a stormy one of war."[9]

Lincoln agreed to the meeting, which was arranged at the White House for the evening of February 16. McMichael made the presentation, "earnestly recommending Mr. Lincoln for reelection." McMichael's "eloquent speech" was "kindly and characteristically replied to by the President." [10] His response is the speech that for so long has been neglected.

Although transcribed by a reporter present at the meeting, the speech was not released during Lincoln's lifetime. Forney eventually published it as part of the campaign by Radical Republicans to defeat a coalition of Democrats and Andrew Johnson Republicans during the 1866 congressional elections. At a rally held in Philadelphia on September 25, 1866, Forney announced that he had found among his own notes Lincoln's speech as taken down "by the reporter," an address stressing the president's willingness to step down from office if that were in the best interest of the nation. To contrast Lincoln's courageous position with that of his hated successor, Forney then read Lincoln's statement, as follows:

I suppose all men are more or less selfish, and I do not suppose that I am an exception to the rule. I very freely acknowledge that this manifestation—of which I heard some time ago. and which is now formally presented to me—of the confidence of the Union League of Philadelphia, is very grateful to my feelings. If it should extend to the presentation of what is similar to it Page  [End Page 26] by the whole nation, it would, by its comparatively greater size, be still more gateful to my feelings. When this is said, so far as personal and selfish considerations are concerned, all is said that is pleasant to me in the light of being here four year more. It is a situation which has been to me one of painful anxiety and toil far beyond anything I had ever before conceived of. Having said this much in regard to the mere selfishness of the matter and the personality of the matter, I will state briefly what I suppose to be the duty of every true man in the country, myself included, and that is to do whatever he can that will best advance the great cause of saving our country. Now, I shall shrink from nothing that shall appear to me to be required of me for that object. I shall not shrink from another man's nomination for the Presidency with any greater hesitation than I would from my own. If it shall be made to appear in any way that the elements upon which the salvation of the country is to depend can be better combined by dismissing me, the country can have no difficulty in getting rid of me. On the contrary I suppose I need not hesitate to say here that, if it shall appear to be the best way of concentrating and consolidating the forces upon the salvation of the country is [sic] to depend to use me further, I can say I do not shrink from it. Now I do not know that it is best to publish this; but, after what has been said to me I could not avoid making it public. It is easy to misconstrue. It is easy to say I am in the field openly for the Presidency— canvassing for it. I hope I am not. I do not think it is good for the country that it should be so construed and understood. I am sure, here to-night, in the presence of you gentlemen and the Almighty, that there is not one act that I am conscious of having done, that looked to this and for myself, that looked to any personal end. I think a man should, in times like these, so keep himself as to be conscious that whatever he has done in this high position, and especially in these extraordinarily difficult times, he has done only for the good of the country. I am sure I have done no more than this, and I am sure that I will try and remain so. This is not a very long speech, but I have nothing more to say. [11]

Lincoln's doubts about the wisdom of making such remarks public probably explain why Forney had the reporter's written version of Page  [End Page 27] the speech in September of 1866, and why it was never released as part of the 1864 presidential campaign. One suspects that Lincoln, and perhaps such political advisers as Forney, considered publication unwise. Lincoln had expressed his willingness to step aside for some other candidate, if that move were in the best interests of the country. In early 1864, with Lincoln's renomination not at all assured, with the names of several potential candidates being mentioned by Republican leaders, it was perhaps deemed unwise for the president to concede the possibility of a change at the top of the ticket. Under those circumstances, the speech was surely best left unreported. Page  [End Page 28]

Notes

  1. Chronicle of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862 to 1902 (Philadelphia: privately printed, 1902), 36–44. For a more recent history, see Maxwell Whiteman, Gentlemen in Crisis: The First Century of the Union League of Philadelphia, 1862–1962 (Philadelphia: The League, 1975).return to text
  2. Elwyn Burns Robinson, "The Public Press of Philadelphia during the Civil War," Ph.D. diss., Western Reserve University, 1936, 141; R. F. N. [Roy F. Nichols], "Forney, John Wein," in Dictionary of American Biography, 21 vols. (New York: Scribner, 1937), 6:526–27.return to text
  3. Quoted in J. G. Randall and Richard N. Current, Lincoln the President, 4 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1952–55), 4:89.return to text
  4. Randall and Current, Lincoln the President, 4:90.return to text
  5. Robinson, "Public Press of Philadelphia," 78–90.return to text
  6. North American and United States Gazette [Phildelphia], Jan. 12, 1864, 1.return to text
  7. Ibid.return to text
  8. Union League in the Twenty-Fourth Ward, Philadelphia (broadside), Jan. 19, 1864, copy in roll 66, Abraham Lincoln Papers (microfilm), Library of Congress. return to text
  9. Forney to John G. Nicolay, Feb. 14, 1864, and Forney to Lincoln, Feb. 14, 1864, roll 68, Abraham Lincoln Papers (microfilm), Library of Congress. The editoral was from the Evening Bulletin, Feb. 13, 1864, 1.return to text
  10. North American and United States Gazette, Feb. 17, 1864, 2.return to text
  11. The Press, Sept. 26, 1866, 8, reprinted in the New York Times, Sept. 28, 1866, 5. return to text